Duolingo update uses AI-powered bots to make learning conversation easier

October 7, 2016


Can bots make learning a new language easier? Duolingo is about to find out.

The language learning startup updated its app Thursday with a new feature that uses chatbots to help its users practice conversations.

The feature only works for Spanish, French and German for now but the company is planning on adding more languages soon. (Up next are Italian and Portuguese, as well as English, for Spanish and Portuguese speakers.)

Start a conversation and the bot, which has a few different “personalities,” will guide you through a text conversation around a particular subject. If you get stuck, the app suggests responses. And when you make a mistake the app will correct you. The conversations start out simple but get steadily more complex as you go along. The bots themselves are surprisingly adept at handling different types of conversations, responding differently to different variations for any given chat.

Bots, of course, have become something of a hot topic in Silicon Valley in the last year, thanks in part to companies like Facebook and Microsoft throwing resources at them. But language learning represents an interesting, and practical, use of the technology — and one that would not be possible without a lot of AI.


You see, the vast majority of the chatbots you see in messaging apps aren’t true AI — they aren’t able to learn as people use them. Instead, many follow a kind of script (think, ordering a pizza, for instance.) That’s because creating AI that can understand language is an exceedingly difficult task (and one that is becoming increasingly important to tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook and Google.) But because Duolingo’s bots are AI-driven, the company says they will get better at responding the more people use them.

Of course, a text conversation can only take you so far. As any language teacher will tell you, there’s  no real substitute for actually practicing spoken conversations. And while Duolingo’s bots aren’t able to understand voice yet, support for voice-enabled conversations is planned for the coming months.

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